We are the descendants of the savants of risk aversion—those people who were the very best at not placing themselves in the path of existential threat.
This is one key reason why bad is stronger than good in our cognition. Even when at equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things. For most of our history, this kept us alive. It’s still an automatic reflex.
Here’s the twist—even though Negativity Bias is automatic, and therefore requires almost no effort on our part, it also sounds very smart. Research shows that book reviewers who tend to be more negative are perceived as more intelligent, competent, and expert than positive reviewers, even when the content of the positive review was independently judged as being of higher quality and greater forcefulness. Apply this to a room full of ambitious people intent on upward mobility and you may find that everyone is jockeying to be the smartest—as defined by the most cleverly negative person—in the room. New ideas don’t stand a chance if we’re not conscious about what’s going on with Negativity Bias.